Colorado Party millionaire and political neophyte Horacio Cartes won Paraguay’s presidential race, officials said on Sunday, paving the way for his nation to rejoin the Mercosur trade bloc.
Cartes, a conservative tobacco baron, took 46 percent of the vote against 37 percent for his nearest rival, Efrain Alegre of the ruling Liberal Party, Paraguay’s top election official said.
Alegre quickly conceded defeat.
“The Paraguayan people have spoken. There’s nothing more to say,” he said in a brief concession speech.
With the national flag wrapped around his neck, the 56-year-old president-elect said in his victory speech that he would lead Paraguay in “a new direction.”
Cartes — whose businesses include banks, the Libertad soccer team, soybeans and currency exchanges — also promised that he would work “for all Paraguayans.”
The conservative Colorados held Paraguay’s presidency for 60 years until leftist former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo was elected in 2008.
Lugo was impeached in June last year, a move that several regional governments saw as a coup d’etat by the conservative legislature. Paraguay was promptly suspended from the Mercosur trade bloc as well as the Unasur group of South American nations.
Cartes’s election brings Paraguay back into their good graces.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica both congratulated Cartes.
“I extend my congratulations to the Paraguayan people for the exemplary civic day. And most importantly: we await you in Mercsour,” Fernandez wrote on her Twitter account.
Mujica in turn invited Cartes to the next Mercosur summit, to be held in Uruguay in June.
The larger countries need Paraguay: in February, the French and Germany ambassadors in Asuncion said that the EU would not sign any agreements with Mercosur as long as Paraguay was absent.
Paraguay was one of the original Mercosur members along with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay when the regional trade bloc was founded in 1991. Venezuela had for years been trying to join Mercosur, a move opposed by Paraguay. With Paraguay out last year, Venezuela entered the group.
However, Paraguayan officials have said they will accept the new member, despite their previous opposition.
Paraguay, population 6.5 million and with 40 percent of the population living in poverty, is plagued by drug trafficking, smuggling and pirating of copyrighted materials like music and movies.
During the negative campaign Alegre — a self-styled crusader against crime and corruption — highlighted Cartes’s 1985 jail stint for his role in a currency smuggling affair, while Cartes accused Alegre of embezzling US$25 million in government funds.
On the left, the coalition that swept Lugo to power in 2008 split, though Lugo was elected to the Paraguayan senate.
Lugo’s truncated presidency was rocked by a sex scandal after he was forced to admit to having fathered two children out of wedlock while he was still a priest. He still faces at least two other paternity suits.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias led an observer mission from the Organization of American States (OAS), and said on Sunday that he had complete confidence in the Electoral Court because it had spent months observing and supporting the process.
There were 515 observers from the OAS, EU, the Union of South American Nations regional bloc known as UNASUR and the Union of Latin American Electoral Organizations.
International election observer Martin Sequeira said voting proceeded calmly with a high turnout.
He said there were some unconfirmed reports of election fraud complaining that some ballots had been pre-marked.
However, Arias said those were only “some small incidents, which you see even in the most consolidated democracies.’”
Cartes, who takes office on Aug. 15, is a newcomer to politics. He did not join the Colorado party until 2009, and says he voted for the first time in 2008.
Additional reporting by AP